Students Review Coop Himmelblau’s L.A. School Campus

Coop Himmelblau’s wildly ambitious L.A. high school opened to great acclaim and local controversy. Two years later, we ask: how is it actually working?

I am an architecture critic by profession, but what you’re about to read is not a piece of architecture criticism, at least not in the traditional sense. It is, instead, the introduction to an experiment in crowd-sourced criticism—sort of a Yelp for buildings—and an attempt to accomplish something all too rare in design journalism: to understand how a new and ambitious piece of architecture works in the real world.

Critics—myself included—often complain about the limitations of writing about buildings only when they are brand new, which means, of course, when they’re unspoiled, scrubbed clean, and mostly empty of people and activity. That’s when many architects like their buildings best, and it is certainly when many architectural photographers do, too. Wouldn’t it be great, we often wonder aloud or in print, if we could balance those reviews with messier, more realistic assessments of how buildings operate long after the ribbon-cutting ceremonies are done?

In reality it is often very tough to make those after-the-fact stories work from a journalistic point of view. Unless a major anniversary is involved—the 10th birthday of the Getty Center, for example, or the Guggenheim’s 70th—these stories, however obvious the need for them, often lack a clear news peg; newspaper editors see them, almost by definition, as stale. To their credit, Metropolis’s editors skipped past all those doubts—it helps that this publication is a monthly dedicated to design, with priorities different from those of a daily newspaper or news magazine—and plunged into a research project about how a high-profile building works by talking to the people who use it every day.

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The design they chose could not have been riper for this sort of analysis. Central Los Angeles High School No. 9, a 238,000-square-foot, $232 million campus by the Austrian architect Wolf Prix and his firm, Coop Himmelblau, is among the most controversial pieces of architecture to be built in Southern California in a generation. Indeed, before we get to the details of this effort to assess it two years after it opened, it’s worth going back in time to review the strange, singular history of the high school and its place in debates over urbanism, planning, and architectural patronage in Los Angeles.

Almost 15 years ago the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—after New York’s, the biggest public-school bureaucracy in the country—launched a massive, $20 billion construction campaign. (In part, its leaders were racing to make up for a glaring lack of school-building during the 1980s and much of the 1990s.) From its earliest stages the building program called for a new high school along Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, in a neighborhood whose existing schools had grown severely overcrowded.

Grand Avenue, which forms the spine of downtown’s Bunker Hill neighborhood, had by the middle of last decade established itself as a showplace for eye-catching architecture, with new buildings by Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2003) and José Rafael Moneo (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 2002) to go with older ones by Arata Isozaki (Museum of Contempo­rary Art, 1986) and Welton Becket (the Music Center complex, aka Lincoln Center West, 1965). Not too far into my tenure as architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times, moreover, plans emerged for a giant new mixed-use project, known as The Grand, designed by Gehry’s office and located directly across the avenue from Disney Hall. That project, which called for a pair of residential towers, Gehry’s first high-rises in Los Angeles, has since stalled.

The power behind nearly all of the Grand Avenue projects I’ve described has been the Los Angeles billionaire businessman, philanthropist, and architecture patron Eli Broad. He has been vocal about his desire to see Bunker Hill transformed into what he calls “our Champs-Élysées,” an urbane, busy cultural heart for a city and region that have developed, famously, in multipolar fashion, without a controlling center. Broad was the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s board of trustees; he helped revive plans for Disney Hall after they hit serious fundraising problems; and he was for a time chair of a special joint-powers authority charged with overseeing the redevelopment project of which The Grand was meant to be the centerpiece. He is also now building a museum to hold his own extensive collection of postwar and contemporary art.

Designed by the New York firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, it will occupy a site just south of Disney Hall and is due for completion in 2013. And it was Broad, more important for this discussion, who radically changed the architectural fortunes of Central High School No. 9—or simply Nine, as many of the students call it. The complicated role he played in the development of the high school’s design has only underscored his reputation as something of a meddling patron, one who has overseen some deeply flawed projects by some very talented architects.

At first LAUSD handed the job of designing the high school on Grand—on a site just to the north of the murderers’ row of icons by Isozaki, Gehry, and Becket and across the Hollywood Freeway from Moneo’s cathedral—to AC Martin Partners, a local firm with a long and significant track record of public projects. Its Department of Water & Power headquarters, opened in 1965, is among the finest buildings in the city, a shimmering glass-skinned monument to the power of infrastructural ambition in creating twentieth-century Los Angeles. In recent years the firm has settled into a less innovative role as a large, busy entity with strong connections to the Los Angeles cultural and political establishments.

Broad thought that the high school ought to be dedicated to the arts, given its proximity to so many cultural institutions downtown. He also thought it needed a more prominent and headline-grabbing designer. In 2002 he intervened and organized a competition to choose a new architect. It didn’t bother him that AC Martin had already produced (and been paid for) a preliminary design for the campus; in the end that scheme would serve as the template for the finished product, a sort of master plan by other means.

The jurors in the competition, hand-picked by Broad, began by narrowing their choices to a group of high-profile finalists—including Bernard Tschumi Architects, London’s Foreign Office Architects, and a pair of L.A. firms, Daly Genik Architects and Michael Maltzan Architecture—before choosing Coop Himmelblau in the fall of 2002. Prix has a long history in Los Angeles, having taught at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and established close friendships with Eric Owen Moss and other leading local architects. But this would be his first building in the city.

He was, for that and other reasons, an odd choice for a client like LAUSD: His firm is known for highly mannered compositions that can be thrilling to walk through but are notoriously complicated and expensive to build. For a school district in the midst of a gargantuan building campaign, looking for cost savings wherever it could find them, the arranged marriage with Prix presented quite a challenge.

When the school was finished, in December 2008, it became clear that it was a hybrid design unlike anything Los Angeles had seen before. The skeleton of the AC Martin scheme was plain to see in the form of five shoebox–shaped buildings along the perimeter of the ten-acre site. But Prix had both added to and reshaped that design until his firm’s signature approach was impossible to miss. He placed a conical library building in the center of the campus—a clear homage to the work of Le Corbusier—along with a grand concrete stairway leading up from Cesar Chavez Street. He added big, round windows to some of the classroom buildings, including several along the school’s western border.

And on the southern edge of the campus, facing Grand Avenue and the freeway, he stretched the design vertically to create a pair of striking elements: a spectacular atrium inside the Grand Avenue entry and a fly tower rising from the top of the auditorium and wrapped in a spiraling form that from above makes the shape of the numeral 9.

Whatever you make of the functionality of the campus, the library, atrium, and tower rank as some of the most dramatic architectural forms built anywhere in Southern California since Disney Hall opened in 2003. Prix’s decision to cloak the whole composition in raw concrete and aluminum panels also makes the school stand out in Los Angeles—even as it knits the design back into a very specific legacy of Northern European high modernism. The campus has a color palette that runs basically from silver to gray, and there are lots of wide-open patches of concrete without plants or shade.

The Nine campus became a lightning rod for criticism well before it opened. As building costs spiraled, Broad was pilloried for hijacking the design and arranging the architectural competition (which he paid for, along with Prix’s fee) while sticking the district with the bloated tab for actually building the school. Prix’s original scheme included a reception hall at the top of the swooping steel ramp above the theater; when the district decided to save a bit of money by not completing that room, the tower holding it up became a purely sculptural element and, for some, a symbol of architectural excess.

My colleague Steve Lopez, a columnist with a knack for skewering bureaucratic foibles, seized on the high school, and the tower in particular, in 2008, when construction was nearly finished. “The cost of the project has gone from $30 million in 2001 for the standard-issue high school to roughly $200 million more for the new-and-improved version seven years later,” he wrote. “The tower rises from a 950-seat per-forming arts theater, and this part of the project alone is priced at $49 million.”

He added: “I don’t dismiss the value of investing in a school as a work of public art—even if it’s just a bathtub short of looking like the board game Mouse Trap. But given the district’s budget problems and the extreme needs of roughly 700,000 students, most of whom are poor enough to qualify for reduced-price lunches, a pricey jewel in the glittering Grand Avenue necklace is a badly timed extravagance.”

My own review of the high school, which appeared in the L.A. Times in May 2009, didn’t ignore the controversy over construction costs but tried to analyze the architecture in a broader sense. For me, it was impossible not to feel deeply ambivalent about the results. The completed campus seemed to make an argument that I was highly uncomfortable with: that there are two and only two categories of public school design: the plain, expedient, crushingly banal sort and the wildly expensive, high-design, iconic sort (of which Nine was the supreme example). My feeling throughout the building campaign was that the district had utterly failed to produce campuses that were both economical and innovatively, appealingly designed. I felt that should have been the central focus of its efforts all along.

A combination of practicality and design savvy, after all, is the thread that ties together most of the best architecture in Los Angeles, from Irving Gill’s courtyard apartment complexes to the Ray and Charles Eames house to early projects by Gehry and Thom Mayne and recent work by Barbara Bestor, Michael Maltzan, and Koning Eizenberg.

As I wrote then, “Having failed to infuse most of its new campuses with innovative design of any sort, the LAUSD and its patrons moved to add capital-A architecture to the one on Grand Avenue. Cost overruns and other missteps then ratcheted up the price of the school to levels that have become politically embarrassing for district leadership. But many of these conflicts and controversies were fated from the start—or at least from the moment that the district, having skimped on serious architecture in its other new schools, decided in this case to gorge on it.”

Still, there was no mistaking the formal power of the school. Or the fact that it promised to be an unusually thrilling place to be a student. As I put it then, “Once the debates over cost and curriculum have fallen away—and that may take years—posterity is likely to look kindly on the campus, which has given Grand Avenue a powerfully unorthodox new landmark and added a mysterious and unconventional silhouette to the downtown skyline.”

The standout quality of the architecture can be a double-edged sword, says Katherine Harrison, the school’s executive director. “The striking character of the buildings attract a great deal of attention to the school which is alternately welcome and unwelcome,” she told me in an e-mail. “Either way, we run the risk of the building somehow defining the school’s mission rather than the educational needs of students and the community we serve.”

Even given the clear architectural charisma of the campus, I was surprised, while reading the results of the surveys and interviews Metropolis conducted with students, faculty, and staff, by the amount of really positive feedback. I was also struck by the range of thoughtful ways students found to express those upbeat reviews.

That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of complaints. These mostly had to do with the lack of color and shade and the number of stairs. This last gripe I’m tempted to chalk up to the preternatural laziness of high school students. (I was the same way.) Regarding color and shade, however, I think the kids have a real point. Put simply, the school is designed for a site somewhere in Bauhaus territory, somewhere the sun comes down glancingly, thinly, rather than Southern California, where the light is full-on and intense. On the few occasions that I have been to the school on a sunny day and forgotten my sun-glasses, the glare has literally sent tears streaming down my cheeks. Sitting in the center of the campus on a really hot day is a bit like sunbathing on a towel made of aluminum foil. As one student put it, the gray-on-silver color scheme is “too bright in the sun, and depressing in the winter.”

On balance, though, the students’ responses were marked by a clear appreciation for Prix’s design. Perhaps most important of all for the purposes of this project, they reflect a relationship between architecture and user that is growing tighter, rather than fraying, over time.

Because of its arts-centered curriculum, Central High School No. 9 tends to attract a particular kind of student: not just the creative type but, as the answers in the surveys indicate, self-aware if also eccentric kids who are proud of their artistic ambition and, often, their idiosyncracies and those of their friends, classmates, and even teachers. That in the end was the biggest news for me. I expected that some parts of the architecture would have fans and other parts detractors; I knew that some hallways would be judged too narrow or wide, some classrooms too bright to teach in without keeping the shades down.

What I hadn’t expected was the degree to which the students would see in the quirky, somewhat cold, and challenging architecture a reflection of their own emerging personalities as artists-in-training. The pride with which the students talk about even the least functional and seemingly daunting aspects of the architecture—the tower with its snakelike appendage; the Corbusian cone of the library—makes clear that they have adopted this huge, sprawling, gray campus as one of their own, as if it were a smart and creative but not altogether well-adjusted fellow student. One student called the campus “really artistic and weird in a good way.”

What two years of attending the school has taught them about the architecture is not so much what they like and dislike about the design, or about what works and what doesn’t, but rather the surprising and ultimately thrilling ways in which their high school campus reminds them of themselves and their peers. Like them it is something of a proud outcast: gangly, dreamy, and beautiful at the same time, trying to make its way in a culture that tends to prize familiarity over strangeness and sameness over individuality. For a teenager who dreams of becoming an artist or a dancer, and has maybe not always found that ambition popular or easily understood by others in his family or neighborhood, what kind of campus could be better?

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